Advice from a Master of Fantastic Tales

Ray Bradbury was a prolific writer—of short stories, novels, plays, screenplays, essays, and poetry. As one title in this collection of essays asserts, “Doing is being,” you are what you do. What Bradbury did was write—at least 1000 words every morning throughout his life. As he describes it, this wasn’t work so much as play. He loved writing; it was his favorite thing to do and by his own definition of being, he was a writer first and last.

More celebrations of writing, and exhortations to write than instructions in the art, these essays do describe how Bradbury wrote and do offer some advice to would be writers. His writing process was essentially — discovery. He sat down at his typewriter—his frequent allusions to that wonderful word machine make me wish I still had one—to see what was on his mind in that moment, and started putting words on paper in a process of free association. Words led to other words and phrases and out of that stream of consciousness settings and characters emerged and the characters led him into their stories. He acted as medium or channel, not editing, not worrying about typos, spelling, or grammar, like a hound finding the scent of a story and pursuing wherever it led. Craft—editing, polishing, structuring—all happened over as many subsequent drafts as needed to finish the work. In his early career, he saw the editorial drafts as drudge work. In later years, as he mastered word and story crafts, he took more pleasure in that work.

What tips and advice does he offer, other write every day? Here, in no particular order, are the notions and ideas I took away from this first reading (I expect to reread it for inspiration any number of times):

Live in your body and pay attention. The myriad mundane details of life are a sea of sensory information. Attend to the people you see every day and the strangers you encounter. They are all characters in countless stories. Study your surroundings. They are all settings in which stories can and do play out. Observe. Render your observations as words.

Note fleeting ideas–words, phrases, and seeds of story. Keep a list and revisit it from time to time to see what might have sprouted over time. 

Feed and heed your Muse. A child of the twentieth century, Bradbury locates and identifies that source of ideas and inspiration in his creative unconscious mind. Feed it generously with books, films, series, music, art, and experience. It’s all grist for your unconscious creativity and may surface in surprising combinations as free associations that drive your conscious creativity. I would add–be mindful what you ingest As we are what we eat, for good or ill, we are also, what we read, and watch, and hear. Let your input be appropriate to your desired output. When your Muse does whisper in your inner ear, pay heed. Honor your Muse by paying attention. Write those whispers, however fragmented, and make them your secret sacred sutras to be pondered for direction and inspiration. 

Mine your personal story. Bradbury says that most of the characters in his many stories were drawn from the family, neighbors, and townspeople of his midwestern youth. They not only populated his idyllic “Greentown” novels (Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Farewell Summer) but also the colonists and Martian ghosts of his Martian Chronicles. We are all stories that too often we feel are too dull and prosaic to be worthy of literature or escapist fiction. Bradbury’s writing shows how the glorious can be mined from the ordinary and the oft repeated advice to “write what you know” doesn’t preclude using what you know best—your own story—as the basis for literature, even fantasy and science fiction. Bradbury lived in Ireland for six months while writing the screenplay for John Houston’s MOBY DICK. He found scant enjoyment and inspiration, so he thought, in the experience. Over subsequent years, Irish characters and settings emerged in his associative writing process that flowered as short stories and plays.

When writing stops being fun, step away from it. Give it a rest. Don’t struggle. Leave it to your Muse and play at (maybe write) something else.

Write for pleasure and the simple joy of writing. Write what you want to read. Don’t try to be literary; simply write as well as you can. Don’t write for the market, for money or fame. Write for the joy of writing. 

There’s more gold in these essays than I have recalled, and I may have contaminated some of Bradbury’s gold nuggets with my own rumination. I’ve ingested his words, fed them to the Muse and look forward to further amusement as they ferment and sprout in whispers that will drive my own play. 

Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes

A classic tale for every age

Are you one who finds or has ever found carnivals and side shows both fascinating and creepy? Are you perhaps one of the “October” people, drawn to the fading colors and dying light of shorter cooler days? Have you tasted the tart sweetness that lies at the heart of bitter melancholy?
Ray Bradbury certainly did and poured all that and more into his classic fantasy novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes. Like most of his novels, this tale had its genesis in his Midwestern youth. This is one of his “Greentown” books, set in the mythologized and renamed Waukegan Illinois of his boyhood—properly paired with his Dandelion Wine, a dark autumnal shadow to that novel’s bright sunshine. It’s not a sequel but the books are thematically tied—and that’s a fitting topic for another post.
Its themes include time’s passage, youth craving maturity and freedom, maturity looking back upon youth with regret, the strained bonds of both friendship and parent-child love, and the sinful siren songs of dangerous shortcuts twixt youth and maturity and damaging abdications of maturity’s responsibilities.
Jim Nightshade, chafes under the anxious smothering care of his widowed mother and wants to grow into greater freedom as fast as he can. Will Holloway, his best friend, is in no rush, mindful of how his father’s age exceeds his mothers. That father, like many inhabitants of Greentown, rues his age, feel’s death’s immanence, and longs for paths untaken, chances not taken, energy unavailable for greater engagement with his son.
Into this mix of desire and regret, steams the ancient steam train hauling Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, something more than a carnival with mysterious sideshows, something wicked. Its steam calliope plays a siren song of dreams fulfilled and youth regained. The denizens of Green Town respond to its call, some more than others. Some dreams become nightmares.
It is indeed a pandemonium. Its sideshows display panoply of unnatural human disfigurements. Its maze of mirrored infinities can trap susceptible souls. On its carousel, time spins forward for some and backwards for others to the dismay of both. Sinister Mr. Dark presides over the shadow show and sets his eye upon restless Jim Nightshade as a fitting partner in pandemonium. Will Holloway needs his father’s help to save Jim from his own dangerous yearnings and Dark’s depredation.
I have read this novel several times at different stages of my own passage through time. As a youth, I identified strongly with Jim Nightshade’s desire from adulthood and liberation from the strictures of youth. I too wanted the carousel of time to spin me more rapidly into more exciting and dangerous adventures and indeed, it did, spinning me wildly and sometimes prematurely both to grownup delights and to mature dismay at my youthful foolhardiness. In my late maturity, I identify more with Mr. Holloway, ruing the inexorable fade of youth’s vigor and regretting some things done and even more things not done that might have been. A classic work offers itself anew to every age, within your own life and across time to different generations. Ray Bradbury wrote more than one classic and Something Wicked This Way Comes counts as one such, at least to this reader.

The Halloween Tree

Ray Bradbury and Halloween—yay!

The Halloween Tree - Kindle edition by Bradbury, Ray, Grimly, Gris.  Children Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

This year I wanted two things for Halloween—an appropriate Halloween read and at least a brief respite from horror, both in fiction (which I enjoy) and in life (and there seems no end to real-life horror these days). Ray Bradbury’s THE HALLOWEEN TREE, which came to my attention just at the right time, satisfied both wishes. As the title says, it’s all about Halloween and it’s a welcome alternative to horror—real and imagined. BUT—you may interject—it’s a book for kids! So? Halloween brings out the kid in me—as I grew up, it was always my favorite holiday AND I like well-written children’s books—AND this is RAY BRADBURY, one of my lifelong mentors in wordcraft and spellbinding storytelling. This neat little novel did not disappoint. It sends a group of twelve-year-old boys on a journey through time wherein they learn Halloween’s “hidden” history and each makes a profound sacrifice to save the life of a friend. It ranges from cave dwellers huddled around a fire, to Egyptian tombs and mummies, to British druids, to the Notre Dame Cathedral, to Mexico for the dia de los Muertos. Like most of Bradbury’s work, it’s limited to a kind of literary equivalent to Norman Rockwell’s nostalgia for a never-quite-real Americana and still, for all that, it’s a beautiful cascade of words and phrases by a master writer and storyteller with an expansive and generous spirit. It lifted my own spirits in this darkening season and that’s just what I wanted.